The forbidden fruit : Chronicles of a speaking tree

Uttaran Das Gupta | Updated on October 04, 2021

Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees is shot through with the pain of loss and the magic of love

The United Nations (UN) earlier this year tried yet again to broker peace between the Greek and Turkish factions of Cyprus. Often compared to the bloodier Israel-Palestine conflict, Cyprus and its capital Nicosia have been divided along ethnic lines with the majority Greeks in the south and minority Turkish in the north since a civil war and an invasion in 1974.

Home to the longest-serving UN peacekeeping force, the island nation in the Mediterranean has been at relative peace, unlike similar conflict zones. It is a popular tourist destination since travel restrictions along the bifurcating Green Line were eased in 2003 and it joined the European Union next year. But the latest attempt at resolving the stalemate has proved futile.

This conflict is the backdrop of Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak’s new novel, The Island of Missing Trees — her first since the Booker shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Shafak, who was born in France and grew up in Turkey, Spain, Jordan, and Germany, has lived in the UK since 2003. Her fiction and non-fiction, in English and Turkish, have often championed freedom of speech and multiculturalism. She has also taken strong positions against waves of right-wing nationalism and populism in the UK, Europe, and Turkey, bringing her into conflict with her native country’s populist leader President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Divisive politics and violence, and their effect on the lives of individuals are the themes of The Island of Missing Trees. The novel tracks the doomed love story of Kostas Kazantzakis, a Christian Greek Cypriot, and Defne, a Muslim Turkish Cypriot. They meet as teenagers in the fateful summer of 1974, at The Happy Fig tavern in Nicosia. It is almost a Romeo-Juliet situation, with lovers from warring factions drawn powerfully to each other, in a place where Thanatos shadows Eros. Their families and their communities would never accept their union. The apathy of the families is a matter of morbid curiosity for their British-born daughter Ada decades later, when none of them attend her mother’s funeral: “If they were the kind of people who would not attend the funeral of one of their own, they were hardly likely to have any love for the child of the deceased.”

War takes its toll not only on humans but also on trees, animals, and even insects. Kostas is an ecologist and botanist, as well as a witness to the rampant destruction of nature through human action — in peacetime and war. Kostas describes, devastatingly, how explosives kill thousands of fruit bats, and when he and Defne leave Cyprus and move to the UK, they carry with them a sapling of a fig tree that they plant in their backyard. The tree is at once a metaphor and not one. Uprooted from its native land and replanted in foreign soil, it is mnemonic of the millions of migrants and refugees who have become symbolic of our times. Recent novels such as Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019) have also explored similar themes. But it is also a real tree that has experienced much trauma like its brethren in incidents such as wildfires that have devastated forest covers around the world in recent years.

The tree is also a major narrator of the novel. It is witty, philosophical, wise — a witness of devastating events, but also a humorous commentator on these. For instance, he insists that the fruit Adam and Eve consumed in the Garden of Eden was a fig. Its logic is indisputable — would you disobey God for an apple? But it can also be philosophical in a broad sweep and a keeper of secrets. In some ways, providing a tree with a voice is an acknowledgment of ecological destruction of which we are all aware, but which we criminally neglect, as Greta Thunberg reminded us recently. Shafak has incorporated the devastating effects of it in this novel, diligently listing her sources for rich details on butterflies, wasps, songbirds, and even mosquitoes at the end of the book.

If the natural world and the doomed lovers are two major narrative strands of the novel, the third one is Ada. While the fig tree is able to sink roots into British soil, Ada feels unmoored without any notion of personal history. The sense of loss is aggravated after the death of her mother. Her father’s growing reclusiveness in the face of bereavement does not help. In our digital world, even grief is not private. A video of Ada’s distress on losing her mother, shot by a classmate, goes viral, making a public spectacle of her pain and complicating her emotions further. It is only the arrival of an eccentric aunt, Meryem, with suitcases emblazoned with Marilyn Monroe pictures, that the past starts opening up for her.

The many themes of the novel — violence, displacement, loss, grief, climate change — have universal resonances in our world. However, for readers in India or the subcontinent, it would appeal in some personal ways as well. The distress of migration is not unfamiliar to most of us, having inherited the trauma of Partition, and many of us would relate to Ada. “I have always believed in inherited pain,” Shafak told The Guardian in a recent interview. But the effect of religious conflict and the devastating outcome of ideas such as “love jihad” would echo in the relationship between Kostas and Defne. Shafak offers love as an antidote to hatred, but perhaps it is increasingly difficult to believe in our indisputably hateful world.

(Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His novel, Ritual, was published in 2020)


The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak


Pages: 354; Rs 470 (paperback)


Check out the book on Amazon

Published on October 04, 2021

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